Meh. Feh. Heh. Wha …?
New words enter the language all the time, but not all of them warrant a mention in the dictionary. "Meh," say the word mavens at the Collins English Dictionary, means "an expression of indifference or boredom." The word’s inclusion in the dictionary, however, is anything but boring.
Meh is a pop culture creation — the word turned up in a 2001 episode of "The Simpsons" — that has exploded on the Internet. TV, text messaging, blogging, chat rooms and message boards are changing the way Americans read, speak and think.
What’s happening to the English language? Is it evolving as usual, or degrading into a mish-mash of illiterate grunts and gutter talk? Do words like ‘meh’ matter? Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, weigh in.
There’s a controversial statistic that says the vocabulary of the average 14-year-old in America has declined from 25,000 words in the 1940s to around 10,000 words today. That’s an incredible figure, if true. I doubt that it is — the steep decline in leisure reading and the triumph of TV notwithstanding. The quantity of vocabulary remains high; the quality is another matter.
Language evolves. But it can devolve, too, as one abomination after another gains universal acceptance. Consider how "I’m all" and "I’m like" have nearly consigned "I said" to spoken-word oblivion. Text messaging has given way to text-speak, with abbreviations like "omg," "brb," and "lol" for brevity, and purposely misspelled words, such as "teh," a corruption of "the," for irony.
We can thank — or blame — the Internet for the proliferation of much of this. Spend two minutes perusing the comments of any popular Web site — YouTube, say, or the Huffington Post. Listen carefully; you can actually hear your brain cells die.
A devolved language undermines our public discourse. "Meh" isn’t the end of the world, of course. But it is another tiny capitulation in the dumbing down of the United States of Whatever.
Language changes because the world changes — and so does our understanding of it. Imagine trying to describe space travel, DNA or the Internet if you were stuck using a dictionary from 1860. It wouldn’t be impossible, but it might be very frustrating.
And sometimes language evolves not merely to serve us, but to delight us.
"Meh" doesn’t count among humankind’s major discoveries or inventions of the last two centuries, true. But it’s a great, fun word. It takes a mildly nuanced idea — "I don’t think I agree with the statement you just made, but I don’t care enough about it (or maybe I just don’t care enough about your opinion) to make a sustained or impassioned counterargument" — and boils it down to a single, elegant syllable. Used properly, it’s a devastating response to the office blowhard. The ability to express yourself so clearly, so quickly is not a degradation of the English language, but an enrichment.
The self-appointed guardians of language who protest additions to the dictionary are drawn mostly from the ranks of people who dig in their heels against change of any sort. That’s not always a bad thing, but the world tends to move on anyway. Sometimes, there’s only one proper response to their objections: "Meh."
(Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis blog daily at www.infinitemonkeysblog.com and joelmathis.blogspot.com.)